I have been dealing with a severe case of “winter blues” for many years. The days are short, sunlight is scarce, and the weather is cold, making it difficult for me to venture outside or leave my home. By the time I finish work, it’s already dark, which makes it challenging to stay motivated with my weekday routines.

It turns out that “winter blues” is more than just cabin fever, and many others experience it too. Seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), is a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern, usually starting in late fall and improving in spring and summer, as defined by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Approximately 5% of U.S. adults experience SAD, according to the American Psychiatric Association. If you find yourself feeling excessively anxious or depressed during colder months, you are not alone, and it’s important to seek help. As we approach this winter, I consulted experts on coping strategies to manage SAD symptoms and make the most of the season.

In this article
1 What is seasonal depression?
2 How can you tell if you might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder?
3 What are some tools to help you through it?

What is seasonal depression?

Shorter days and less sunlight affect the brain’s chemical balance.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, SAD is linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain due to shorter daylight hours and reduced sunlight, causing a disruption in the circadian rhythm during seasonal changes. “The primary cause of seasonal depression is the lack of exposure to natural light,” noted Madeline Lucas, LCSW, a therapist and clinical content manager at Real. “This absence of natural light affects our mood and contributes to depression by disrupting our biological clock, known as our circadian rhythm, which operates on a 24-hour cycle. The reduced natural light in winter disrupts this cycle.”

It’s more common in women, young adults, and individuals with other forms of depression or bipolar disorder.

Although anyone can develop SAD, studies have indicated that it is more prevalent among women, adolescents, and individuals with a history of depression or bipolar disorder symptoms. Research published in Depression Research and Treatment revealed that women are four times more likely to receive a SAD diagnosis, often occurring in the 18-30 age group. According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of depression may exacerbate during winter if previously diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder.

How can you tell if you might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder?

Since SAD is a type of seasonal depression, its symptoms often mirror those of non-seasonal depression, such as feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, appetite or weight changes, and concentration difficulties that emerge in fall or early winter and diminish in spring and summer. Lucas also highlighted other symptoms like social withdrawal, fatigue, alterations in sleep and appetite patterns, persistent sadness, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension or pain, and more. “While these symptoms can vary, if you notice their increased frequency over several consecutive weeks, consider exploring the possibility of experiencing seasonal depression,” she advised. Seek assistance at the first signs of reduced energy, enthusiasm, or happiness compared to your usual self or if you typically undergo mood shifts in winter.

What are some tools to help you through it?

Note: The first (and most crucial) step is to consult your doctor and engage in therapy to determine the most effective plan of action for you. Your healthcare team may recommend medication or specific therapies based on your needs. Besides following your personalized healthcare plan, I reached out to experts for additional strategies to complement your treatment. Implement these techniques alongside therapy and discuss a suitable SAD plan with your doctor.

Get to know what works for you

While certain tips can aid in adjusting to seasonal changes, the key to overcoming seasonal depression is recognizing and prioritizing activities that make you feel your best, then incorporating them into your routine regularly. “Coping strategies are not one-size-fits-all,” mentioned Lucas. “Initially, it involves trial and error. Perhaps going for a run outdoors helps, or maybe you find solace in organizing your pantry when you need to self-soothe. Experiment with various activities to determine what feels supportive and aligns with your preferences.”

Do naps rejuvenate or make you feel unproductive? Does a walk invigorate you or fill you with dread? Do reading a good book or making social plans bring you joy? Identify a few uplifting activities that soothe and elevate your mood, then integrate them consistently into your routine.

Light therapy

If sunlight is scarce in your area from October to March, light therapy could be immensely beneficial. “Light therapy, also called phototherapy, involves sitting near a light box for exposure to bright light soon after waking up,” explained Amber Weiss, LMHC, NCC, THTC, a psychotherapist and founder of Transformative Mindset in New York City. “By mimicking sunlight, light therapy can impact brain chemicals associated with emotions and mood.” If natural sunlight is limited, open your blinds and bask in direct sunlight during the day, especially in the morning. If dull days persist, consider using a light box that replicates the sun’s rays. Consult your doctor to determine the appropriate light box for you.

Fill (and stick to) a regular schedule

“For individuals experiencing SAD, maintaining routines is crucial as you want to adhere to your schedule, not your mood,” advised Rachel Cavallaro, PsyD, MAC, a licensed psychologist at Thriveworks. “Regularly engaging in exercise and social activities is vital. Incorporate workouts and consistent social engagements throughout winter to significantly reduce the impact of seasonal depression.” A packed schedule of enjoyable activities can uplift your mood and energy levels, provided that you include activities you eagerly anticipate. For example, make plans with a friend who brings laughter, join yoga or dance classes that boost your spirits rather than opting for high-intensity training sessions you may dread.

Keep up a consistent sleep schedule

Since SAD can disrupt your internal clock, maintain a regular sleep routine to restore balance. “Go to bed and wake up at the same time daily to reset your circadian rhythms, limit daytime naps to 20 minutes (if needed), avoid caffeine after 3 p.m., reduce blue light exposure at night, and engage in physical activity early in the day when sunlight is abundant,” recommended Tralee Johnson, MA, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist. Despite the temptation to sleep more or retire early due to extended darkness in winter, adhere to a consistent sleep pattern (aiming for 7-9 hours) to regulate your body.

Vitamin D supplementation

As sunlight is a primary source of vitamin D, reduced exposure may lead to vitamin D deficiencies affecting mood, energy levels, and other seasonal depression symptoms. “Assessing and supplementing vitamin D levels can be beneficial for SAD,” recommended Dr. James Greenblatt, MD, chief medical officer at Walden Behavioral Care and author. “Dosages typically range from 2,000 to 5,000 international units to restore levels to normal, depending on individual requirements.” Consult your doctor before initiating vitamin D supplementation to confirm if it’s suitable for you.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Similar to other conditions, seasonal depression may signal underlying bodily issues. Hence, prioritizing self-care can alleviate SAD symptoms. Physical activity has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. “Exercise and physical activities can enhance mood in both typical depression and seasonal affective disorder,” affirmed Dr. Greenblatt. “Additionally, consider evaluating and treating other nutrient deficiencies like iron, vitamin B12, folate, magnesium, and omega-3 fatty acids by incorporating nutrient-rich foods.” A well-maintained body promotes a sound mind, and overall self-care can aid in adapting to seasonal changes.

Start small

Remember, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) set lofty goals to experience a successful season. Granting yourself compassion and fulfilling your needs are the most effective ways to manage SAD symptoms. “Start with small steps when coping,” advised Lucas. “Unable to go outside today? Try opening your window slightly. Feel like rising from bed close to your alarm is unachievable? Attempt sitting up in bed and stretching your legs. Setting ambitious expectations like running eight miles every morning and baking cookies nightly will only set you up for disappointment. What truly aids us in coping is practicing self-compassion.” Listen to your body, prioritize activities that suit you best, and allow flexibility to adjust your goals, routines, and habits.

If you suspect you have seasonal affective disorder, it’s essential to seek help. Consult your doctor, reach out to a therapist, or confide in a close friend or family member.

If you are having suicidal thoughts or behaviors, seek immediate assistance.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Crisis Text Line: text CONNECT to 741741


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